Six years ago, Barbara Ashkenas, a Jewish art educator from Connecticut, was faced with an indescribable loss when both her mother and brother died the same year. Ashkenas made the decision to say Kaddish—the Jewish traditional mourning prayer for a deceased relative. Male congregants in the Orthodox community typically narrate the prayer. As she browsed Jewish literature on the spiritual and practical meaning behind the prayer, Ashkenas noticed there was little, if any, information written by women.
The recognition for female voices explaining how and why women choose to say Kaddish was the inspiration for Kaddish: Women's Voices, a book by Ashkenas and editor Michal Smart. The first of its kind, the book, published earlier this month, provides personal and practical narratives from 52 Jewish women. The women explain their experiences and reasons for choosing—and in some cases, from refraining—from saying Kaddish, and illustrate the prayer’s impact on their lives.
“Saying Kaddish was an extremely difficult and exhausting time period for me,” Ashkenas said. “The incentive to create this book was so it can be a companion for women who choose to say Kaddish. It’s the type of book you can pick up and read without making any decisions, but just to help women through the mourning process.”
According to Jewish law, a formal mourner is classified based on losing a close relative: mother, father, brother, sister, son, daughter, or spouse. The recitation of the Kaddish prayer dates back as early as the 8th century, when it was first cited in the Talmudic book of Sofrim.
The significance of the prayer is seen as a demonstrative act of kindness to the deceased’s soul. The prayer, said in a responsive manner, does not mention any regards towards death but rather offers praise to God as a merit to release the soul from punishment in the afterlife. The prayer is said daily, three times a day during synagogue services. Those mourning over the loss of a parent recite Kaddish for a year, while the loss of other relatives say Kaddish for 30 days, although some extend the allotted time to 12 months as well.
While it is customary to say Kaddish within all sects of Judaism, and the book’s essays are from women of all religious backgrounds, the book is dominated and framed from an Orthodox angle. Most of the women who contributed to the book attended Orthodox services.
Women have been reciting Kaddish for hundreds of years but the practice never became normative in Orthodox synagogues, according to Smart. Over the last two decades, many in the Modern Orthodox sect are choosing to reconsider bereavement rituals for women. Ashkenas attributes this to the somewhat liberal revival Orthodox Judaism is experiencing in regards to involving women in religious practices—small steps, notes Ashkenas. Because of this, the amount of Orthodox women who’ve committed to saying Kaddish has risen in recent years, she said.
“Because women in Orthodox synagogues don’t lead services, or even speak out, it’s a new experience for women and their communities to have a female voice reciting Kaddish,” Smart noted. “It’s becoming more common now for women to take a present stance in saying Kaddish because of the current feminist shift in general of women getting public roles in society.”
“But a woman’s role in saying Kaddish is far past gender politics,” she added. “It’s about the full experience of what it means to lose someone, how to find closure and the spiritual journey of healing in the process.”
Many rabbis have voiced support over women saying Kaddish out loud in synagogues, most notably generational greats like Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, who started the Modern Orthodox movement. Rabbi Maurice Lamm, who penned the popular 1969 mourning book The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, originally wrote “the obligation to recite Kaddish is placed upon the son, not the daughter.” When the book was re-released as a second edition 30 years later, Lamm noted that “today, reciting the Kaddish is open to all women who want to express their grief in this manner… all stand to benefit from a woman’s holy resolve in saying Kaddish.”
“My hope and prayer is that the experiences of female mourners in our [synagogues] will inspire them to become more involved in Jewish life, and also serve as a catalyst for developing the synagogue as a conscious community,” writes Rabbi Daniel Cohen of Congregation Adugath Sholom of Stamford, CT in the book. “Let us not forget that one effort to welcome a person or inquire about their well-being may alter her life, and be a trigger for events in the future.”
Still, not all communities embrace the female voice with the prayer. Judaism has many interpretations of its laws, depending on the sect. The Orthodox community is considered the most stringent in adherence to traditions, and while the Modern Orthodox sect makes room for interpretations, ultra-Orthodox societies would consider women saying Kaddish forbidden.
From a sociological perspective, the presence of a female voice in prayer services pushes comfort zones in some Orthodox synagogues. Women reciting Kaddish violates the traditional boundaries set in place many years ago, some believe, while others view the practice as breaking the rules of modesty.
Still, the women who recite Kaddish for a deceased relative say the prayer provides many forms of healing. For some, it helped them resolve issues with the departed; others found consolation within the daily gathering of the community in a synagogue. Still other women cited Kaddish as the effort that forced them to confront and communicate with God during a time of anger and pain.
“When one suffers a tragic loss, Kaddish is an amazing source to find one's way back to prayer, and to God,” said Shelley Richman Cohen, a Manhattan mother who said Kaddish in 2007 after losing her 21-year-old quadriplegic son Nathanial to Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. “Even when one loses a child, they never lose the desire to do something for that child. Saying Kaddish was the last act I could do for Nathanial. It was a contemplated time of prayer and allowed me to feel like I was doing something for my son.”
“When I was a little girl, I was told there are many levels in heaven and that when a Kaddish is recited for a loved one, their [soul] gets moved to the next level,” Cohen writes in her essay. “It helped me make that nebulous void of death feel like a slightly more tangible, cause and effect relationship.”
Cohen is the first female in her family to say Kaddish, as members of her Orthodox family leave the practice to men. She said she was lucky her congregation on the Upper West Side of Manhattan welcomed her during daily services.
A female recitation of the Kaddish prayer is far different from a man’s prayer. Some women in the book argue that the commitment to attending services every day, three times a day, is harder for Jewish women than men, as they juggle family and work commitments.
“The hardest part of me saying Kaddish for my mother was having young children at home,” said Rachel Mesch, a French literature professor and author. “It was tough figuring things out like how to get to services, negotiating the attention for the kids. I wanted to be present for my children but I was also being absent to fulfill the commitment to Kaddish.”
Mesch said she related to Kaddish in a maternal tone: reciting the prayer was a therapeutic outlet where she could connect with her mother, a religious, Egalitarian Conservative Jew and principle feminist.
“How could anyone be expected to be at [synagogue] every morning when they have children to nurse, clothe, send off to school?” Mesch writes in her essay. “Despite the challenges, I was appreciative of the public space that was carved out for me as the mourner. At home, on the other hand, I had to find my own words, and they did not come easily. From the beginning, I was daunted by the difficulty of expressing my grief to my own children, particularly my daughters.”
Women who recite Kaddish in Orthodox synagogues are sometimes met with discouragement and even opposition. While the grieving period is difficult, the backlash some women face from communities can be just as isolating. In her essay, Cohen recalls a time she traveled to Miami while she was still reciting Kaddish for her son, and a group of Yeshiva boys attending the synagogue she was praying in would not respond to her Kaddish. Infuriated, she shouted to the men, asking if they would respond “Amen” and no one did. Cohen notes she was also drowned out by louder mourners in an Orthodox synagogue in upstate New York—men, perhaps, adopting the same school of thought directed at women praying at the Western Wall.
Some of the women voice their anger in the book, noting how secluded some communities made them feel when they were not “looking to challenge authority or to sow discord, but only to claim their rightful inheritance, and in doing so, become closer to God,” as Smart noted. Yet the women recount in the book, page after page, how they endured the struggle to sustain the transformative experience they were seeking.
Ashkenas is optimistic a larger space will open for religious women, in and outside of the synagogue.
“We’re just seeing the beginning of welcoming Jewish women to various positions of powers in institutions,” she said. “Synagogue used to be seen as a man’s club, and it’s almost been a male bastion for men to say Kaddish. But even since the book started as just a project, the number of women saying Kaddish in synagogues I’ve visited have largely increased, and now there’s a book to offer perspective of women who chose to commit to the prayer.”